By Claire GagneUpdated Jun 09, 2015
Summer in Canada means canoe trips, family hikes—and ticks. And with ticks comes the looming spectre of Lyme disease.
There are many types of tick, but the one you need to know about is the blacklegged tick (also called the deer tick). The Public Health Agency of Canada says populations of infected blacklegged ticks in Canada are increasing. These tiny critters can carry a type of bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi, which they transmit to people by feeding on them for at least 24 hours. It’s this bacteria that causes Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is a serious illness that, if not stopped in its tracks, can cause serious health issues like arthritis, neurological problems and even paralysis. But don’t panic—Lyme disease is actually easily prevented, and very treatable if it’s caught early.
Should I be worried?
If you live, camp or cottage in an area that has a known deer tick population, you should be extra watchful for these dastardly bloodsuckers. These areas include southern British Columbia, southeastern and south-central Manitoba, southern, eastern and northwestern Ontario, southern Quebec, southern New Brunswick and Grand Manan Island, and parts of Nova Scotia. The Public Health Agency of Canada has a map that shows the known areas of risk. However, ticks can get established in new places. Blacklegged ticks have also recently been spotted in the Toronto area.
Doug Sider, medical director of communicable disease prevention and control at Public Health Ontario, recommends calling your local health authority if you’re unsure about the prevalence of blacklegged ticks in your region. Technically, you could find one anywhere because they can migrate on birds, but Sider says the chance of being bitten by a tick in a place that isn’t known to be a high-risk area is low.
How can I spot one on my kid?
If your child has been in a wooded area, make sure you check for ticks that evening. “Strip the kid down and have a really close look,” says Sider. Ticks prefer warm, dark parts of the body, so look under their arms, around their ears, inside their belly button, behind their knees, in their groin area and in their hair. You can check out these great step-by-step instructions on how to check for ticks from the Dr. E. Murakami Centre for Lyme Research, Education and Assistance.
Sider also recommends giving your kid a shower or bath in the evening—it’s a good place to do a tick check and the water can wash away ones that haven’t had a chance to attach.
When you’re looking, be aware that ticks, especially young ones, can be as small as a poppy seed. Blacklegged ticks are brownish in colour with eight legs. But, says Sider, “ticks are small, and unless you’ve got a PhD in entomology, you’re not going to be good at identifying them.” The good news? If you do find a tick, there’s a good chance it is one of the other types of tick that live in Canada. A tick bite is usually painless, so don’t rely on your kid to let you know he has one on him.
What do I do if I find one?
“Don’t freak out,” says Sider. “If you’ve been out that day and you’re doing the check that night, the tick hasn’t been on long enough to transfer the bacteria.”
Sider says to remove it using a pair of tweezers. The key is to pull the tick straight out, making sure you don’t leave any part of the tick behind. Once you’ve removed it, wash the area with soap and water.
Avoid folk remedies like using a match or petroleum jelly to remove the tick.
If you think you found the tick within 24 hours, the tick would not have had a chance to embed itself into the skin and there’s no concern your kid will get Lyme disease, although he might get a local inflammatory reaction. “That’s OK,” says Sider. You can apply an icepack to reduce swelling, and use the regular antihistamines or topical treatments for itchiness.
But if you find the tick a few days after your kid was in the woods, remove it and visit your doctor. (Another way of knowing how long the tick has been on the body is by looking at its size. If it’s engorged with blood, it’s been on longer than 24 hours.)
Your doctor will determine the course of action based on the risk of contracting Lyme disease. For example, if you’re in an area with an established blacklegged tick population, she might put your kid on a course of antibiotics. But if you’re not in a high-risk area, Sider says the recommended approach is to engage in “watchful waiting,” and look out for flu-like symptoms within the next three to four weeks and a telltale expanding bull's-eye rash around the bite, a common sign of Lyme disease.
You can also send the tick to your local public health authority, who will confirm it’s a blacklegged tick and, if it is, send it off to be tested for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Sider notes this helps with monitoring and surveillance, but because this testing takes several weeks, it won’t help diagnose your child.
How can my kid avoid ticks?
Long clothing and Deet-based insect repellent deter ticks. Because they hang out in treed areas, especially where there’s low-hanging shrubbery, you can avoid going into those areas. “On a well-manicured path, the risk is minimal. If you’re wandering off the path, that’s when you need to be concerned,” says Sider. He adds that if your kid is in a field, there’s minimal risk. “Ticks aren’t sitting in the middle of a soccer field waiting to jump onto you.”